The “Obama proposal for force reduction is foolhardy,” writes Bradley Thayer, professor of political science at Baylor University, in his recent commentary. His post is a reaction to the White House’s effort to unilaterally reduce the number of U.S. operationally deployed nuclear warheads to as low as 300. The decision about the U.S. nuclear force structure will have significant implications for U.S. and allied security around the world and therefore should not start with an arbitrary number.
Rather, the decision about U.S. nuclear forces has to start by assessing the strategic environment in the years ahead. The United States is the only country in the world without a substantial nuclear weapons modernization program. The Administration’s motivation behind further unilateral reductions is its stated desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons. But this goal is not desirable, because it is inherently contradictory unless the strategic environment fundamentally changes.
By lowering numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons, the Administration is increasing their value in the view of U.S. opponents and peer competitors, including Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. The Administration assumes that other countries will follow the U.S. lead. This is not true, because they have their own motivations to pursue nuclear weapons programs. South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons at a time when the United States was testing and building up its strategic arsenal. Since the United States stopped testing and got rid of about 80 percent of its strategic warheads, North Korea and Pakistan have emerged as new nuclear weapons players. Iran is well on its way to achieving a nuclear weapon capability.
“The global deterrent and coercive commitments of the United States do not permit additional cuts. They cannot be eliminated or dramatically reduced without a cost and penalty for the interests of the United States,” writes Thayer. As the United States is cutting its conventional forces, nuclear weapons will be more—not less—important. In addition, lowering the number of weapons could reduce the President’s options when deciding what would be an appropriate response in the case of an enemy strike.
As new nuclear players emerge, the U.S. targeting list is broader and more rapidly developing than ever. A significant lowering of the number of operationally deployed nuclear weapons would require a shift in U.S. targeting strategy—from counterforce (e.g. military posts, nuclear weapons, nuclear production capabilities) to countervalue (e.g. populations and cities). A country that values freedom—for itself and others—above anything else should not divest itself of weapons that allow it to destroy enemy forces instead of civilian populations.